Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi: The Last Prophets?

Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.

Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi are the last books in the Old Testament, and according to rabbinic tradition, the last of the prophets. God has said everything he needs to say; now it is up to his followers to study, interpret, and apply his words.  All three are set in the Persian period, after Cyrus had allowed the return of those exiles who wanted to return to the land of their ancestors. Haggai and Zechariah are set specifically “in the second year of Darius” after the exiles had returned, but the Second Temple had not been built. Malachi’s prophecies come a little later, after the Temple has been completed, but ongoing support for it was shaky. Since the name”Malachi” means “my messenger”, some scholars think the writer wasn’t necessarily a man named Malachi, but someone who wished to remain anonymous, perhaps even Ezra.

The people are back in their own land, and the concept of monotheism seems to have been refined in the crucible of the exile.. However, all is not well. The poetic dreams of a second Eden in the form of a restored Jerusalem have not been realized. Although the people aren’t sacrificing their children to Molech or setting up Asherah poles in their backyards anymore, neither do they put God first in their lives. Idols of wood and stone have been replaced by idolatry of the heart, and that’s a bit more difficult to root out. Each of the three final prophets have slightly different concerns and perspectives.

Haggai’s main concern is that the people have not yet rebuilt the Temple. They’ve been there long enough to build nice houses for themselves.“This is what the Lord Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.’”Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?”  Haggai admonishes them to get to work building the Temple with a carrot-and-stick approach: If they do, they will be materially blessed. If they don’t, they will be never get ahead, no matter how hard they work.

While Haggai speaks plainly and directly, Zechariah uses a variety of metaphors: a man watching from the myrtle trees, a man with a measuring line, dirty and clean laundry, a flying scroll, a woman in a basket, chariots, crowns, shepherds. He thinks the temple should be rebuilt too, but understands God as being more concerned with ethical behavior than formal worship. There’s a really intriguing pericope in chapter 7 about fasting. The people want to know whether they should continue fasting on the anniversary of destruction of Solomon’s Temple, as they have done for the past seventy years. Zechariah has God saying “Was it really for me that you fasted? And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves? God doesn’t want ritual worship as much as he wants people to treat each other fairly and kindly. This is nothing new; it’s the same thing he’s already said many times through the Mosaic law and the earlier prophets, but Zechariah says it again:  “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’

Most sermons I’ve heard on Malachi have to do with tithing. Malachi says that God knows people aren’t offering their best to God, but their leftovers, and he’s not impressed with their fake piety. Like those who “donate” used underwear and broken electronics to Goodwill, they offer second-rate sacrifices to God while keeping the cream of the crop for themselves. They figure out ways to cheat on giving their fair share of tithes, which God intended to support the priests and temple, provide relief to the poor, and to support the general welfare of the community. “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’“In tithes and offerings. 9 You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.”  But Malachi is equally concerned about ethical behavior. He is particularly concerned with family values, especially divorce, which he sees as a kind of violence against women. “The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,”says the Lord Almighty.” God is not pleased with ” adulterers and perjurers,  those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice”

It’s interesting to me to consider Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi together and note their similarities and differences, especially since the writers lived in the same time and place. Although the people are physically back in the Promised Land, they still have far to go spiritually. The much-anticipated Day of the Lord did not coincide with their return, but there will come a time when good will finally triumph over evil, and all will be as God intended. Only God knows when that day will come, but God has already shown us the way to that future: love of God expressed through love of neighbor. And that’s good news to me.

 

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Zephaniah: Things Aren’t Always What They Seem

 Woe to the city of oppressors,
rebellious and defiled!
She obeys no one,
she accepts no correction.
She does not trust in the Lord,
she does not draw near to her God.
Her officials within her
are roaring lions;
her rulers are evening wolves,
who leave nothing for the morning.
er prophets are unprincipled;
they are treacherous people.
Her priests profane the sanctuary
and do violence to the law.

Zephaniah is bound to create a bit of cognitive dissonance for Biblical inerrantists. The writer identifies himself as  ” Zephaniah, son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hezekiah, during the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah”. He then proceeds to announce impending doom coming for Judah, along with the surrounding nations, because of their continuing sins against God and neighbor. There’s nothing new about that motif; the problem is the time frame. Zephaniah’s invectives, which include the royal family,  occur in the time of Josiah. Elsewhere in the Bible, Josiah is portrayed as a very good king, in fact one of the best as measured by his singlehearted devotion to God and attempts to stamp out idol worship. The priests and prophets who are castigated as being unprincipled, treacherous, and profane would have included Hilkiah, Josiah’s mentor, as well Jeremiah and other prophetic luminaries. as  So what’s going on here?

Some more literally-minded scholars will attempt to harmonize the discrepancy by assuming that Zephaniah’s prophecies are from very early in Josiah’s reign, when he was still a minor, and before the Book of the Law (probably Deuteronomy) was discovered during temple renovations. That doesn’t really make sense to me, especially as Zephaniah invokes judgement not on the king himself, but on the “king’s sons” And as we know in historical hindsight, that’s exactly what happened. Whether you judge them on political or theological criteria, Josiah’s sons were bad kings, and their poor leadership led to Jerusalem’s conquest and the Babylonian exile. So other scholars think Zephaniah was written after the monarchy came to an end.

I’ve always wondered why Josiah met such an early and untimely end, considering that the books of Kings and Chronicles present him in such an unwaveringly positive light.According to the prevailing traditionalist theologies of the time, that should not have happened. God rewards the good guys with health, wealth, and long life, while punishing the bad guys with the opposite. Clearly, that was and is an inadequate understanding of God and the way God works.

I see the Bible is a rich and living book not because God magically dictated every word to an auto-writing scribe, but because it contains so many different perspectives. We all try to make sense of what is going on around us, and see the world through our own lenses. Perhaps Zephaniah’s writings date from the time of Josiah, but from his vantage point things were not going so swimmingly. Perhaps they are from a later time period, one in which the exiles struggled to make sense of history. Regardless of when it was written, Zephaniah says to me is that things are always more complicated than they seem. As Paul observed, we “know in part and prophesy in part” and “see through a glass darkly”.  Or as Mulder and Scully might say, “The truth is out there somewhere”.

I appreciate the Bible as a record of humanity’s evolving understanding of God. For me, acknowledging that its writers were a diverse group of people, each with their own particular perspective, doesn’t diminish but enhances my faith. The details may differ, but the story is the same: There is a God; he wants us to live in love and justice with each other; and he is always working with and through us to make that happen.  And that’s good news to me.

Habakkuk: Hey God, Explain This!

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
so that justice is perverted.

Habakkuk’s  three short chapters present a dialogue between the prophet and God. Its setting seems to have been during the zenith of Babylon’s power, when the occupiers ruled over the land of the people of God with an iron hand. Unlike many of the other prophetic books, Habakkuk doesn’t attribute Israel’s captivity and exile to punishment for their many sins against God and neighbor.  Instead, he describes how bad life under the thumb of Babylon is, and he clearly can’t understand why God isn’t doing something about it. As he sees it, the  Babylonians behave in much worse ways than the Israelites ever thought about doing. Life is not fair, and this does not make sense to someone who believes God is primarily a god of justice. In a bit of an existential crisis, he asks God to explain himself: “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?”

God’s response to Habakkuk is not to give him a reason, but to advise patience.  God assumes responsibility for the rise of the Babylonian empire; he is quite aware of all the bad things they are doing, and he will see that the evil that they do comes back on their own heads, but it will be on his own timetable. “The revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.”

The book ends with a psalm recalling God’s past acts of power on behalf of his people, and urging him to intervene once again. In language reminiscent of Job’s, Habakkuk vows to remain faithful to God even if the world falls apart around him. “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”  

Habakkuk is yet another example of a Biblical character who had doubts about the nature of God. His observations about what is happening to him and around him do not square with his understanding of God. Rather than engage in theological contortions to explain away any discrepancy, he expresses his doubts and concerns honestly to God. Like Jacob, he wrestles with God, and will not let go until he is blessed with understanding. Like Job, he is unafraid of making his case directly to God. And like Jacob and Job and so many others before and after him, he is rewarded. His understanding of God takes a quantum leap to that place beyond logic we call faith.

God isn’t angry with us when we have doubts about his goodness, justice, or even existence. Such doubts are often the way to God, rather than away from them. And that’s good news to me.

 

Nahum: The Wrath of God Revealed

The Lord is good,
a refuge in times of trouble.
He cares for those who trust in him,
8 but with an overwhelming flood
he will make an end of Nineveh;
he will pursue his foes into the realm of darkness.

The short book of Nahum describes what Jonah was hoping would happen to Nineveh: No mention or chance of repentance is given: an angry God is completely fed up and completely destroys them. God’s wrathful vengeance obliterates them, and is described in detail worthy of an imaginative Hollywood thriller movie.

It’s interesting to read Jonah and Nahum side by side, for they present quite different understandings of God. In Jonah, love wins. God won’t give up until he has brought his most recalcitrant and fallen creatures into his kingdom. In Nahum, justice wins. The bad guys get what is justly coming to them, and everybody should be happy because they got what they deserved. So which view is correct?

My understanding is that perhaps both views are true, in kind of a Schrödinger’s cat paradox. I’m not sure that from our limited perspective, we can understand the mind of God. How can God be completely just and completely loving at the same time? Don’t these qualities contradict each other? Job certainly understood that dilemma, and found it to be a question that could not be answered by reason, but which could be understood only through relationship.

The best understanding I’ve read (and I wish I could remember where I read it so I could credit the author) is that God’s wrath is really God’s love, seen from a different point of view. Seen from the side of the oppressor, God is acting in punitive anger. Seen from the side of the oppressed, God is acting in liberating love. What the Egyptian slavemasters saw as an expression of God’s wrath, the liberated Hebrews saw as an expression of God’s mercy. This motif is repeated again and again in the Bible, and I think it has continued throughout history for those with eyes to see it.

When the Bible seems to speak with many voices, I don’t see them as contradictions, but as different perspectives. Just because we have difficulty holding two different attributes in our mind at the same time doesn’t mean they aren’t both true. God is both great and good. And that’s good news to me.

 

 

 

 

Micah: Keep it Simple

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah was a contemporary of Amos and in many ways his message is similar: Terrible judgement is coming because of the individual and corporate sins of the nations of Israel and Judah. God’s people, whom he had chosen in order that they might be a light to the pagan nations around them, have failed abysmally in that respect. Far from demonstrating love for God and neighbor, they are consumed by greed and plot ways to take advantage of their neighbors. Micah rails, “Woe to those who plan iniquity, to those who plot evil on their beds! At morning’s light they carry it out because it is in their power to do it.They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud people of their homes, they rob them of their inheritance.”  “Your rich people are violent; your inhabitants are liars and their tongues speak deceitfully. Therefore, I have begun to destroy you, to ruin you because of your sins”. Micah also has God speaking rather harsh words to the country’s leaders, who are using rather than serving the common people:  “Listen, you leaders of Jacob, you rulers of Israel. Should you not embrace justice, you who hate good and love evil; who tear the skin from my people and the flesh from their bones; who eat my people’s flesh, strip off their skin and break their bones in pieces; who chop them up like meat for the pan, like flesh for the pot?”

Those who claim to speak for God are not speaking God’s words. Instead, they proclaim a kind of eighth-century prosperity gospel, as Micah sarcastically notes with “If a liar and deceiver comes and says, ‘I will prophesy for you plenty of wine and beer,’ that would be just the prophet for this people!”  These populist prophets tell Micah to stop speaking out against social injustice, because God isn’t really concerned about that kind of thing. “Do not prophesy,” their prophets say.“Do not prophesy about these things; disgrace will not overtake us.” Priests and prophets alike seem to think that God is concerned mainly about proper ritual behavior and worship. Micah hears God as saying they are very wrong: God is much more concerned with how people treat each other. “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly[a] with your God.”

Lest other nations gloat over Israel’s downfall and think that it proves God is irrelevant, they will find they are wrong. God will find a way in spite of his obtuse people. There’s a lovely little prophecy in chapter 5 about a promised good and wise ruler from Bethlehem, whom Jews understand to be a messianic second David and Christians understand to be Jesus. This  ruler will lead the people into being what God intended for them to be from the beginning: an example and a blessing to all the other nations on earth. “Many nations will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.”

Micah 6:8 is one of my favorite Bible verses, because it says that what God expects from us is not complicated. He wants us to act justly- to treat people fairly ourselves, and to be advocates for those who are being taking advantage of. He wants us to love mercy- to be kind and forgiving and helpful to everyone we can. And he wants us to walk humbly- to be aware that we are not in the place of God, that we do not have all the answers, that we should be willing to listen and to learn, that “it’s not about me”. There are no magic words we must say or rituals we must perform in exactly the right way to get in God’s good graces, no long lists of “thou shalts and shalt nots” to memorize and obey, no need to believe six impossible things before breakfast. Just three simple, yet profound things on the divine “to do” list. Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God.

It’s simple, really, and it reminds me of what Jesus would tell us many years later “My yoke is easy and my burden is light”.  God will eventually accomplish what he intended, the earth and its inhabitants will at last be all they were meant to be, and God invites us to join him in making it so. And that’s good news to me.

 

Jonah: More than a Fish Story

And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?

Jonah is one of my favorite Bible stories, and it’s not about a big fish. Personally, I don’t think it is meant to be taken literally at all. It’s a great example of the power of stories to tell the truth in ways that less powerful genres cannot.

The story begins with God telling Jonah to go to Nineveh and warn its people that God is not pleased with their behavior and if they do not change their ways, they are headed for destruction. Nineveh was a major city located near current Mosul, Iraq, and the capital of the Assyrian empire under Sennacharib. To say that Assyrians were not nice people would be an understatement: ISIS seems to have taken a few pages from their playbook. Assyria was bent on capturing and subjugating Israel, and waged war with exceptional cruelty, which is described in the Bible and also in external sources such as as the Lachish reliefs . The Biblical book of Nahum elaborates on Assyrian atrocities in poetic detail, calling it a city full of blood among other vivid descriptions.

Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh, and who could blame him? Instead he books passage on a ship headed in the opposite direction. God brews up a storm that threatens to sink the ship, which Jonah apparently sleeps through until awakened by the ship’s captain. Lots are cast to determine who is responsible, and the lot falls on Jonah, who by now feels guilty and urges the sailors to throw him overboard. Ironically, the pagan crew seems to hold high moral standards of their own: they initially protest the idea of sacrificing Jonah to save themselves. The storm grows worse, so they give in and as soon as he goes over the side, the seas calm. Meanwhile, God “provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah” and Jonah winds up in time-out in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. Upon his exit from the fish, Jonah again hears the voice of God telling him to “go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you”. Jonah reluctantly obeys this time, meets with astonishingly successful results, and God relents and doesn’t destroy the city or its people.

One would think Jonah would be pleased, especially considering that the outcome for most of God’s prophets in Israel were not quite so sunny. But he isn’t, and in fact is quite angry with God. He complains, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” Jonah wanted Nineveh to be destroyed as punishment for its many sins, and thinks God is wrong for sparing it. God responds by declaring both his sovereignty and his care for all his creation. And that’s the end of the story. Nineveh repents, but we don’t know whether Jonah ever does.

One of the most fascinating details of this story to me is that it presents both the pagan sailors and the pagan Assyrians more positively than most of the rest of the Old Testament treats nonbelievers. The sailors place a high value on human life, as evidenced by their unwillingness to sacrifice Jonah if they could find a way out of that. All the Ninevites, from the king on down, listen to God and change their behavior.There are plenty of Biblical examples of times the children of Abraham, who are supposed to be a moral and theological light to the rest of the world, fail abysmally. That is as true today as it was then. I know some atheists who are kind and caring people and some Christians who are quite mean and nasty people.

But I think the main point of the story is this: God loves everyone, bad people and good people alike, and will go to incredible, even ridiculous lengths to demonstrate that love. Isn’t that what the message of the cross is all about?  There is nothing we can do to change God’s love for us. There is nothing God will not do in an attempt to bring us back into relationship with him.  And that’s really good news to me!

Obadiah: What Goes Around…

“The day of the Lord is near
for all nations.
As you have done, it will be done to you;
your deeds will return upon your own head.”

At only 21 verses, Obadiah is the shortest book in the  Hebrew Bible. It concerns the Edomites, who were distant cousins of the Israelites. Both nations claimed Abraham and Isaac as ancestors, but the Edomite line came through Esau and the Israelite line through Jacob.

Although distant cousins, the Edomites and the Israelites did not get along much better than their ancestors Esau and Jacob. Edom was usually treated as a kind of vassal state by Israel, and a case could be made that Israel took advantage of Edom in much the same way as Jacob took advantage of Esau. When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC, the tables were turned, and Edomites joined in the looting of the captured city. Obadiah condemns Edom for taking advantage of Israel’s situation instead of helping them, and predicts their destruction as a consequence. Unlike Israel, Edom is beyond redemption. God will eventually restore Israel, but Edom’s destruction will be complete and permanent.

Many commentators see Edom as an archetype of any nation or people opposed to God. Later Jewish theologians identified Rome with Edom, and interestingly/sadly enough, also with Christendom. Most Christian theologians agree with their Jewish brethren than Edom should be seen as a symbol for those “powers and principalities” that are against God and his people.

Obadiah is a sobering reminder that “what goes around comes around”. Actions have consequences which can be permanent and serious. That’s the bad news. For the good news, one has to read between the lines of this short book and imagine the converse of the karmic storm Edom faced. If Edom had not gloated over Jerusalem’s destruction, but instead had helped its refugees, how might their story have been different? Would they have been included in the restored kingdom Obadiah envisioned? Centuries later, Paul writes to the Galatians: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

God has built justice into the moral fabric of the universe, and I think that’s good news. It is morally wrong to take advantage of someone else’s misfortune to enrich oneself. It is morally right to help others whenever we can in whatever ways we can. “What goes around comes around” can be bad news or good news, depending on the choices we make. Choose wisely.